You can’t blame the Green Bay Packers if they’re tempted to let Eddie Lacy’s weight issues become somebody else’s problem.
But they shouldn’t. Not yet.
Lacy is a free agent this offseason, and while you never know about these things, he’ll probably have limited value on the NFL’s open market. Teams are aware of his weight problems, and he’s coming off an ankle injury that required surgery and ended his 2016 season after five games.
So there’s a good chance Lacy will have to sign a one-year deal to prove to the league his ankle is fine and he can get, and keep, the weight off.
I contacted an agent who has studied the running back market because of a client hitting free agency, and he guessed that Lacy will get a deal worth about $2 million plus plenty of incentives. Maybe it will end up being more, but if it’s even near that range, that’s low risk for the Packers.
It’s worth a last shot because Lacy is one of general manager Ted Thompson’s most talented picks of the last several drafts and at age 26 (27 in June) isn’t quite old even for a position that ages like dog years. When he’s healthy and not carrying too many extra pounds, he can be a difference maker.
If the Packers do it, they should make a couple of commitments as well. One is ensuring they’re not in any way enabling Lacy. The other is something Thompson failed to do last year: Hedge the bet by drafting a running back.
There's reason to be a Lacy skeptic. He had everything to play for (i.e., a new contract) in 2016, but after losing weight early in the spring he slowly put it back on until by the start of the season he looked like he was pretty much back where he’d ended 2015. Then several months of limited activity after ankle surgery made the hill climb even higher. Based on his last sighting during media availability in the locker room in January, he if anything has added a few pounds.
Weight battles like this are tough. A scout I talked to late this week likened it to a player with a substance-abuse problem in that you can go to great lengths to help him, but it won’t matter until he’s all in.
“It’s not a matter of just changing habits here and there,” the scout said, “it’s a matter of changing your lifestyle. Your eating habits, day to day your exercise habits, your approach to it all.”
From what I’ve been able to find out, coach Mike McCarthy fined Lacy for not making weight over the last couple of seasons, though it’s unclear how often or how much. Whatever the extent, it didn’t work.
Lacy's running stats were good until he got hurt (5.1-yard average per carry), and there's no questioning that he ran hard. But he wasn’t as explosive as when he was clearly lighter. The extra weight is no help when it comes to injuries, either.
The Packers have a strong support system for him: four strength and conditioning coaches plus a full-time nutritionist, Adam Korzun, who earns endless public praise from McCarthy for his work. The resources are there.
Maybe they can get weight clauses into his contract, too. A nice bonus each week for making weight would be a good motivator, though it doesn’t appear to be a common tactic in the NFL.
“Everything is negotiable,” the scout said. “I don’t know that there are a lot of guys in that situation.”
McGINN: 2016 Packers by the numbers
During the 2015 season, Lacy’s college coach, Nick Saban, reportedly told the Packers that the best way to motivate the running back was to “take football away from him.” McCarthy benched Lacy for a time late in the season, but that didn’t change anything to help for 2015. Lacy did get the message enough to commit in the offseason to work with P90X trainer Tony Horton, but those losses didn’t last the summer.
One assistant coach in the league I contacted this week said that peer pressure works as well as anything. When the coach was with the Detroit Lions, future Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders would ask an overweight player to run extra sprints with him after practice.
“No one said no to Barry,” the coach said.
The Packers certainly have to go in with eyes wide open. Last year, they didn’t hedge against Lacy having any problems, and it cost them.
Thompson didn’t draft a running back and opened the season with James Starks as the only other halfback on the roster. After Starks went down with a knee injury, the Packers’ run game was a mess until Ty Montgomery’s stunning transition to running back saved it.
Montgomery has good size (about 220 pounds) but probably isn’t a full-time player. Starks was cut this week. And while the Packers can hope Lacy pans out, they can’t expect it. So even if Thompson signs Lacy, he still would need to draft a back after the first couple rounds. The Packers need more options at a position with an especially high attrition rate.
The fact is, Lacy is a talented football player, one of the most talented on the Packers’ roster. He can help them win games.
He’s also a big man who has big trouble keeping weight off. But it’s worth one last shot to see if the Packers can help him lighten up.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on on Twitter @PeteDougherty.